Man saved from prison by DNA test in rape Tests of genetic material exonerate original suspect, nab real rapist, who pleads guilty.

April 28, 1992|By Glenn Small | Glenn Small,Staff Writer

Cheryl J. Willis, 29, a bookkeeper from Parkville, was sleeping on her living room couch one hot summer night in August 1990 when she woke to anyone's nightmare.

A man had sneaked into her Harford Road apartment, placed a pillowcase over her head and was punching her in the face. The attacker then raped her and ran out the back door.

Bloodied, frightened and with a broken nose, Ms. Willis managed to catch a glimpse of the assailant as he ran toward her back door, but the only light was the dim haze of the television set.

Ms. Willis, who willingly identified herself for this story, later told police that she was certain she knew the man. It was her ex-boyfriend, she charged. And he was arrested.

But yesterday in Baltimore County Circuit Court, it was not the ex-boyfriend who was sentenced for the crime. It was another man, Gregory Ritter, who in February pleaded guilty to the rape.

Ritter, a carpenter from Hamilton, was sentenced to 40 years in prison by Judge J. William Hinkel for second-degree rape and burglary. As part of a plea bargain, a charge of first-degree rape, carrying a possible life sentence, was dropped.

The story of how police and prosecutors ruled out the ex-boyfriend as a suspect and found Ritter is one of modern science, coincidence and luck, say those familiar with the case.

Soon after his arrest, the ex-boyfriend, proclaiming his innocence, agreed to submit to a genetic "fingerprinting," or a test of his deoxyribonucleic acid (DNA). He sat in jail for four months waiting for the results.

A few days after the ex-boyfriend's arrest, Ritter also was arrested -- for drunken driving. Coincidentally, Ritter was sent to the Parkville precinct, where the ex-boyfriend was being held. He recognized Ritter as the former boyfriend of a woman who had once lived in Ms. Willis' house. He also noticed that Ritter appeared to be on drugs, and that he and Ritter looked alike. He called detectives and told them.

Had it not been for that chance encounter in jail, police may have never known of Gregory Ritter, says Scott Shellenberger, an assistant state's attorney.

After the DNA test came back negative on the ex-boyfriend in December 1990, the charges against him were dropped. Prosecutors got a court order to take blood samples from Ritter in January 1991. Five months later, the results came back from the FBI in Washington: A positive match between the DNA of Ritter's blood and the semen found in the victim.

Michael A. Zwaig, the innocent man's attorney, says, "But for that test, he could be the one serving a 40-year sentence for a crime he didn't commit."

The prosecutor agrees, saying there was strong identification from the victim that could have convinced a judge or jury.

The ex-boyfriend doesn't want to talk about the affair. "It happened, and it's over," he says. He adds, "It's good that they had the DNA test, but I'm still bitter about somethings."

Ms. Willis says she's grateful for the DNA test as well, because not only did it rule out the wrong suspect, but it also helped put the right man behind bars. "He [Ritter] could have gotten off without that test," Ms. Willis says, noting that it was dark in her apartment that night and she didn't see her attacker very well.

"I'm glad it's over," she continues. "He probably deserved more, but I'm glad for what he got."

Ritter apologized yesterday in court. He said he had no memory of the attack and was drunk and high on drugs at the time.

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